Cliff Lee's Return: What Should We Expect?

Cliff Lee makes his big return today. What should we expect from him moving forward?

Cliff Lee makes his much anticipated return to the Phillies rotation tonight after missing more than two months with a strain in his pitching elbow. These next few starts could very well be his last in a Phillies uniform, as Lee’s name is bandied about quite often when trade deadline rumors are stirring.

Obviously Lee is no stranger to this - he’s been the prize of trade deadlines in the past. But this isn’t a trade rumor article. I do believe that he’ll be traded, but I’m not going to waste your time and guess who’ll acquire his services for the remainder of the season. I want to talk about Cliff Lee’s fantasy value and what adding him to your team could mean down the stretch.

First, we have to address the injury. It’s been a nightmare season for elbow injuries, and Lee appears to have come out of his elbow scare luckier than most. The 35-year-old Lee has been able to rest his $25 million per year left arm, and despite dealing with some soreness early in his rehab program, he’s all systems go down the stretch. He hasn't pitched for the Phillies since May 18th, and his rehab stat lines have some doubting that he’s the same Cliff Lee.

The truth is, we won’t know until we know. I’m just reluctant to put a lot of stock in a veteran’s rehab start numbers. I look at Lee’s three-start rehab assignment in class-A Clearwater - where he yielded 5.06 ERA in 10 2/3 innings - a lot like I do with spring training for veteran pitchers. He’s trying to face live hitters after missing two months, while some class-A kids are getting a chance of a lifetime to take some hacks against a Cy Young award winner. His early season stat line is much more telling, and is what I think we need to focus on when anticipating Lee’s final two months of 2014.

Cliff Lee made 10 starts before his DL-stint, going 4-4 with a 3.18 ERA. That's not super encouraging, but here’s why I’m excited about Lee from here on out. His 10 starts gave us a nERD of 2.09, right in line with his career numbers and in the neighborhood of Garrett Richards, Scott Kazmir, and Julio Teheran this season. The 3.18 ERA by itself would be alright, but his 2.69 FIP and 72 FIP- tell us that he’s been even better than his ERA. Lee’s 72 FIP- is 11th-best in the league.

Lee’s batted ball profile leaves even more room for optimism. His early season BABIP is nearly 50 points higher than his career numbers, and his 70% strand rate is below league average, nearly 7% off of his pace the past few seasons in Philadelphia. He’s been unlucky. The naysayers will point to the slight dip in velocity and say it’s to blame, but it wasn't a noteworthy drop. We also don’t know if the early season elbow soreness was to blame, and we've had no reports of the velocity during Lee’s rehab starts, so we’ll have to wait and see.

His strikeouts are down slightly, yet still above league average, but it appears it’s in exchange for more ground balls. I’m okay with this. Lee’s become more and more of a ground-ball pitcher as his career has progressed, and though it’s a small sample size, his 49.1% ground-ball rate is about 4% to 5% higher than he’s been the past few seasons. His elite walk rate is here to stay, so when the BABIP regulates closer to his career totals, we can expect he’ll improve on his early season 1.28 WHIP.

Cliff Lee returns tonight against the Giants with some unanswered questions - questions that Major League teams and fantasy owners alike are waiting to have answered. If you’re in the middle of the pack, or perhaps an elite starter away from contention, I’d make an offer to acquire Lee as soon as possible. Yes, there’s risk here as we've discussed, but the potential opportunity here is great. It’s likely that you can get Lee for much less than his preseason valuation, and he has the potential to be a top-10 starter from here on out. You can’t win fantasy championships without taking chances, and Lee is a chance I’m willing to take.